This is a season of milestones for Open Data in the U.S. Next Tuesday, May 20, is a celebration to mark the fifth anniversary of the launch of data.gov, the hub for U.S. government data that’s become a model for similar efforts around the world. And this month marks the first anniversary of the U.S. government’s Open Data Policy, which has also inspired international efforts to make government data “open by default.”
As a one-year follow-up to the Open Data Policy, the White House released the U.S. Open Data Action Plan at the end of last week. The Plan describes a number of valuable federal datasets now being released. Perhaps even more important, it sets out an approach to implementation that will be driven by data users. The goals of the plan include “better focusing on users’ needs,” working with the public to prioritize datasets for release, and helping innovators use open government data.
In that context, we were very pleased at the GovLab to see the Action Plan recognize the Open Data Roundtables that we are now organizing to bring federal agencies together with business users. As the Plan says, “New York University’s GovLab . . . is now hosting a series of Open Data Roundtables to bring companies and government data owners together. Specific, actionable feedback from these sessions and others has the potential to improve descriptions, formats, and accessibility of government data.” Our first Roundtable, which is being co-hosted by the White House and planned with the Department of Commerce, will be held in Washington on June 18, and the Departments of the Treasury, Transportation, Labor, and the USDA have committed to participate in similar events as well.
What will all this open government data do? Overall, I see four major kinds of government data that have proved to have great public value – and in each case, there have been recent, encouraging moves to release more open data in better ways.
Data for government accountability. The Open Data movement began with the idea that governments need to release more data about their own operations to be truly transparent and accountable to voters. On May 9, President Obama signed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA), which the Senate and House passed unanimously. After several years of Congressional effort, with outside support from the Data Transparency Coalition, the passage of the DATA Act will bring unprecedented detail and accuracy to the reporting of federal spending. It may be the most important open government legislation since the Freedom of Information Act, and is a landmark event for open data.
Regulatory data that government collects. Government agencies collect all kinds of data on regulated industries, and releasing that data can help keep businesses honest and socially conscious. The EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, for example, has significantly reduced pollution from factories and other sources over decades simply by making their environmental impact public – and giving local communities the information they need to push for cleaner operations. In April the Department of Health and Human Services made headlines by releasing data on Medicare payments that identified doctors by name, and showed which ones are tapping the system for millions or tens of millions of dollars a year. Making this information public will do a lot to improve the system and discourage Medicare fraud.
Data for science and research. The Open Access movement, a close ally of the Open Data movement, has pushed for the results of scientific research, particularly government-funded research, to be made available to the public for free. They won a significant victory in January when a budgetary provision mandated that about half of all federally funded research must be made available online at no charge within a year of journal publication. It’s an important step toward the ultimate goal of making detailed scientific data available as Open Data from the early stages of research on.
Data for use as a business resource. This kind of Open Data is the focus of the Open Data 500 at the GovLab, and increasingly of federal policy as well. The Open Data Action Plan, and the federal government’s approach to Open Data in general, are geared to making government data available for business use. The Office of Science and Technology Policy and the government agencies it works with have promoted Open Data for business in several ways. On May 28, the White House and the Department of Energy will put on an Energy Datapalooza, with a “Technology Showcase” of more than 30 new uses of energy data. On June 1 through 3 the Health Data Consortium and the Department of Health and Human Services will put on the annual Health Datapalooza. This massive event, which attracted about two thousand people last year, explores the many ways that open government data is transforming health care – the area where Open Data may ultimately have the most disruptive impact.
Open Data still has a long way to go. We need better data, made more accessible and usable, in a more timely way. But it’s also a good time to step back for a minute, look at what’s been done so far, and celebrate a year of a lot of progress.
Joel Gurin, Founder and Editor, OpenDataNow.com